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Sabino Canyon - Tucson, Arizona

by Sam Rua



Coronado National Forest Sabino Canyon Recreation Area near Tucson, AZ

Sabino Canyon offers a diversity of wildlife and scenery making it one of the most visited mountain canyon areas in the Sonoran Desert.  From desert scrub of the lower Sonoran biome to Oak Woodland, Chaparral, and Desert Grasslands of the Upper Sonoran biome, most of the habitats are easily accessible with an abundance of wildlife and canyon geology that makes Sabino Canyon a great place to photograph.

Located about 12 miles from downtown Tucson, AZ, Sabino Canyon is on the southern slope of the Catalina Mountain range and is administered by the Coronado National Forest. There is a nominal fee required for entrance which also permits entrance to Mount Lemmon, Madera Canyon, and South Fork-Cave Creek in the Chiricahua Mountains. Annual passes are available for about $20.

Sabino Canyon is very photographer friendly and easily accessible. However, because of the popularity of Sabino Canyon, there are certain times you may want to avoid because of the crowds. Generally, early morning visitors are mainly runners, walkers, and hikers. Mid-day and late afternoons see more people in the area. There are over 75 miles of trails that range from easy to difficult, depending on where they lead. Generally, trails going into the canyons are steeper and more difficult, while those that meander around the foothills tend to be more easily traveled. The main road going into Sabino Canyon climbs from 2,800 feet to 3,300 feet and crisscrosses Sabino Creek over nine bridges.

You may choose to walk along the roads and/or hike the system of trails that leads deeper into the canyons and high country. According to the US Forest Service, Sabino Lake Trail will take you to a popular wetland bird watching spot. Sabino Canyon also contains a rich riparian area along Sabino Creek. Water fowl and other riparian visitors can be seen below Sabino Creek Dam.

There is a tram/shuttle service which can be useful if you want to bring a lot of gear that you wouldn’t normally consider taking on an excursion. July 2006 brought unusually high amounts of rainfall to the area which caused considerable flood damage. The flood water created landslides with resulting debris flows that scoured some sections of the creek bed and wiped out bridges. As a result, the tram now only goes up to stop #4, about 2 miles from the Visitor Center although the Forest Service has repaired the road up to stop #9 (3.8 miles from the Visitor Center). Although the damage was extensive in some areas, most of Sabino Canyon and the adjacent areas are already recovering.

Wildlife includes the quintessential desert inhabitants, including a variety of snakes, lizards (including Gila monsters), squirrels, rabbits, coyotes, javelina (collared peccary), mountain lions, bobcats, white-tailed and mule deer. Coati, foxes (Kit and Gray), and ringtail cats are also known to inhabit Sabino Canyon.

Sabino canyon is also a great location for spotting a wide variety of birds including quail, doves (White winged, Mourning, and Inca), roadrunners, hawks (Red-tailed, Ferruginous, Harris’s, Zone-tailed, Cooper’s, etc.), owls, cardinals, woodpeckers, thrashers, flycatchers, wrens, hummingbirds, etc, just to name some of the species more commonly seen in the area. Sabino Canyon is also a great place to photograph butterflies and dragonflies during the non-winter months.

Spring (March – April) and Fall (October – November) are the best times to visit because of the increased diversity of wildlife and more moderate temperatures. The Sonoran Desert has two rainy seasons which are an important consideration when visiting a canyon habitat that is prone to flooding. Flash flooding can occur even though the immediate area has not received any appreciable rainfall, as heavy rainfall can occur higher in the Catalinas. You do not want to be caught in or near Sabino Creek during a flash flood. The creek can go from a gentle flow to a raging torrent in a matter of minutes. The area receives about 12 inches of rainfall a year, with half of that coming during the summer monsoon season (generally starting the first week in July and lasting through the beginning of September). The summer monsoons typically occur in the afternoon and early evening. Monsoon storms are characterized by huge cumulonimbus clouds, localized and brief but heavy downpours, and lots of lightning.  The wildlife activity picks up after a summer monsoon downpour and the cooler temperature and clean air make this is a good time to photograph. The other half of the rainfall comes during the winter months which typically involve more gentle precipitation that covers larger areas of the Sonoran Desert and for generally longer periods, sometimes lasting several days.

During the summer months, wildlife is most active in the early morning and early evening. It is not uncommon for the temperature to be in the 90’s before 10 a.m. during the hottest months so it is always a good idea to bring along plenty of water, regardless of what time of the year you may be visiting the area.



All images and text copyright © Sam Rua